Frederick Douglass: Escape from Slavery

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Douglass describes the institution of slavery in a pragmatic way. Growing up as a slave away from his mother has allowed him to establish this ideology about slavery. He describes how his relationship with his mother was broken because of slaveholders. It was deprived of emotion since he lived away from her. He was only able to see her at night when she would travel to where he was enslaved and lay with him. They usually didn’t talk at all and she passed away when he was only seven. Sadly, he describes that her death didn’t feel much more than a strangers’ death. Douglass expressed how through his experience he came to realize that slaveholders were the reason women like his mother suffered. Then the children they had would experience more difficulties that other children did since they were Mulattos - having slave mothers and white fathers.

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Where the slaves lived, they received their food allowance monthly and their clothes on a yearly basis. As Frederick describes: “The men and women slaves received, as their monthly allowance of food, eight pounds of pork, or its equivalent in fish, and one bushel of corn meal. Their yearly clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts, one pair of linen trousers, like the shirts, one jacket, one pair of trousers for winter, made of coarse negro cloth, one pair of stockings, and one pair of shoes; the whole of which could not have cost more than seven dollars.” Children on the other hand had their had their allowance given to their mothers or the women that took care of them. The ones that didn’t work in the field didn’t even get shoes, stockings, jackets, nor trousers; they only got two coarse linen shirts per year. Then when these failed them, they went naked until the next allowance-day. Douglass then mocks this misery they lived in by saying: “Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year.”

Slave living conditions were horrible. None of them had beds. The best they got was coarse blankets, which was only given to men and women. But clearly, the slaves had bigger worries than not having a bed to come to at night. As Douglass explains: “They find less difficulty from the want of beds, than from the want of time to sleep; for when their day’s work in the field is done, the most of them having their washing, mending, and cooking to do, and having few or none of the ordinary facilities for doing either of these, very many of their sleeping hours are consumed in preparing for the field the coming day.” Their lives revolved around getting things done around the field and the houses of their owners. At the end of every day, no one cared about have a bed or a comfortable place to rest. They were too exhausted to feel. Then eventually, everyone -old and young, male and female, married and single-would drop down side by side, on one common bed which was the cold, damp floor while covering themselves in their miserable blankets that correlated with the misery they live in. Until the next morning came along and “they are summoned to the field by the driver’s horn.”

The northerners believed that the slaves were happy because the slaves were often singing while they were on their way to the great house farm. They usually sounded both joyful and sad at the same time. Douglass expresses how he didn’t know the underlying meaning of these songs when he was a slave but when he hears them no they move him to tears because he understands that they were a bitter complaint about slavery and he finally began to understand how evil slavery was. These northerners were truly misinformed.

Douglass defines life on the plantation as very tough and forceful. He compares it disapprovingly to being a slave in a city. When he was a slave in Baltimore, he noted that the closeness of homes to one another made it less likely that the owners would be too insulting. He also had a chance while running errands in the city to mingle with free people. Compared to the city, the plantation was just horrific. He recalls being extremely disturbed.

Douglass lives in Hugh Auld’s household for about seven years. During this time, he is able to learn how to read and write, though Mrs. Auld no longer tutors him. Slavery hurts Mrs. Auld as much as it hurts Douglass himself. The mentality of slavery shreds her of her inherent sympathy for others, making her cruel. Douglass has already studied the alphabet and is determined to learn how to read. He gave bread to poor local boys so he can get reading lessons in return. Douglass writes that he is now tempted to thank these boys personally, but he knows that they would suffer for it, because teaching blacks still counts as a crime.

At around the age of twelve, Douglass stumbles upon a book called The Columbian Orator, which contains a philosophical dialogue between a master and a slave. In the dialogue, the master addresses the argument for slavery, and the slave counters each point, eventually persuading the master to set him free. The book allows Douglass to fully articulate the case against slavery, but it also makes him hate his masters even more. This problem is a difficult position for Douglass and often fills him with guilt. As Hugh Auld predicted, Douglass’s dissatisfaction is sorely acute now since he understands how miserable and unjust his situation is and has no way to escape it. During this time, Douglass excitedly listens to anyone discussing slavery. He continuously hears the word “abolitionist.” In a city newspaper account of a Northern abolitionist petition, Douglass finally realizes that the word means “antislavery.”

One way in which Douglass portrays Covey is as a villain and by portraying him as anti-Christian. The slaves call Covey “the snake,” mostly because he sneaks through the grass, but also because this nickname is a reference to Satan’s appearance in the form of a snake in the biblical book of Genesis. Douglass also describes Covey as a false Christian. Covey tries to convince himself and even God into believing that he is a true Christian, but his cruel actions expose him to be a sinner. As Douglass connects himself with Christian faith, he develops the sense of conflict between himself and Covey by showing Covey as an enemy of Christianity itself. As Douglass’s nemesis. Douglass’s fight with Covey marks Douglass’s turning point from dispirited slave to a confident, freedom-seeking man. Douglass achieves this alteration by matching and comprising Covey’s own violence and by showing himself to be Covey’s opposite. Douglass thus arises as a brave man, while Covey is exposed as a coward. Finally, Douglass emerges as a leader of men, while Covey is shown to be a weak master who cannot even get the aid of another slave, Bill, to help him.

Christianity was the dominant religion in the United States when slavery rates were at their highest. It was very widespread that even slaves practiced it. Douglass expresses how there is a difference between “the Christianity of Christ” and “the Christianity of the land”. Christianity as a religion is “the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” Mostly, masters and slaveholders had no natural good in them. They hypothetically practiced the “Christianity of Christ” at church but throughout their everyday life they forced slaves into excessive labor with no food, rest, proper equipment, or basic life essentials, they beat them, tortured them, and sometimes even murdered them too. These characteristics didn’t represent true Christianity in any form.

Douglass also explains how religious slaveholders differed from non-religious slaveholders. Ironically enough, non-religious slaveholders were not as bitter and inhumane towards slaves. He seemed to never understand how certain individuals with strong Christian faith would practice such actions. What God says to practice beating, starving, and enslaving with such cruelty? Thus, it can be understood that Christiaity had a ruionos effect on slavery.

Douglass illustrates that it doesn't matter if slaveowners are good or bad people, because the institution of slavery corrupts all the owners. They simply have too much power and the slaves too little. He also says that the owners not unreasonably fear the slaves will rebel against such an unfair situation. The masters believe they must use fear and cruelty to keep the slaves abject.

Douglass escaped to the North but is not forthcoming about how he managed this feat. He explains that his method of escape is still used by other slaves and thus he doesn't want to publicize it. Douglass adds that the underground railroad (organized system of cooperation among abolitionists helping fugitive slaves escape to the North or Canada) should be called the 'upperground railroad,' and he honors 'those good men and women for their noble daring, and applauds them for willingly subjecting themselves to bloody persecution,' but he states emphatically that he is adamantly opposed to anyone revealing the means whereby slaves escape. Douglass says that he needed money to escape, so he proposed to Hugh Auld that he 'hire his time.' In return for a set amount per week, Douglass gained the liberty of finding work. 'Rain or shine, work or no work, at the end of each week the money must be forthcoming, or I must give up my privilege.' He relieved Hugh Auld from the responsibility of clothing, feeding, and finding work for him. For Douglass, this work situation meant suffering under slavery, but also experiencing the anxiety of a free person. He was determined to earn enough for his escape. 

Eventually, he acquired enough money to get himself to New York on September 3, 1838. Douglass was surprised at the wealth of luxuries in the North since he imagined that without slaves, Northerners must be living in poor conditions. Instead, he found the North to be refined and wealthy and without signs of poverty. 'The people looked more able, stronger, healthier, and happier than those of Maryland.' Douglass was enterprising and soon found work loading a ship and managing various odd jobs. Unfortunately, he could not work as a caulker, for the white caulkers in New Bedford refused to work with a black person. 

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